While being a professional race driving instructor may not be included in The Family Feud’s survey of the top 7 coolest jobs to have, it definitely deserves a place on the “really cool” side of the job spectrum. Granted, it’s still work, but where else can you get paid to “play” outside with race cars at places like Laguna Seca?
My old pal Tommy Fogarty, previously an instructor at Skip Barber, used to break me down with his occasional workday updates. “I just spent the morning talking to Alex Van Halen about drumming.” “I just drove a Lamborghini Diablo through the corkscrew.” My personal favorite was he once called me while Sammy Hagar was in his passenger seat so I could listen in to the discussion about Cabo Wabo tequila. Yep. That sounds more fun than spending 8 hours a day running reports in a cube.
One of the longest tenured and most respected members of this eclectic fraternity of racing professors is Randy Buck. Like all of his contemporaries, Randy started out with aspirations of winning Monaco and did manage to win an SCCA regional Formula Vee title, but the old racing dilemma of “you need to pay to play” derailed that goal. But rather than turn his back on the sport altogether, Randy got involved in the racing school business and has been a professional instructor for 23 years. He currently works for the Simraceway Performance Driving Center, in addition to being a member of a Ferrari Challenge team and a driver coach for McLaren North America. In other words, he’s seen about all there is to see with four wheels and a motor.
Randy even had to sit through a two day audition that I had with Skip Barber about 10 years ago. Talk about reality TV potential! I was offered a chance to compete with four guys for one spot to become a part-time Skip Barber high performance street driving instructor. My credentials: two years of karting and a lot of burnouts and doughnuts in high school and college. The first day we did some driving drills in the Dodge Neon and although I wasn’t very impressive, I didn’t make a fool of myself. It was day two when I unraveled. The drill was to drive a large Dodge Ram pickup on a slick track and get the rear end to come around with just steering input, no brakes. I sucked. For the life of me I couldn’t get that rear to break loose. Randy sat in the passenger seat as patient as a monk giving me calm pointers and words of encouragement, but after 25 chances I was still plowing straight through the corner with a monster push. The result: I was summoned into Mr Buck’s office and sent packing at the end of the day. Funny thing is years later it all clicked in a dream and I think I now know how to spin the bleeping truck!
Bulseyeview is grateful that Randy took some time to answer a few of my racing school inquiries.
Bulseyeview: We know that people are capable of some crazy feats behind the wheel, what is the strangest thing that you’ve witnessed a student do on the track?
RB: I think the strangest thing for me with students are the ones who seemingly can’t follow really simple directions during a class. I get it that not everyone can be really fast or even half way competent in a race car, but there are things that shouldn’t be that difficult for someone who presumably has driven a car on the street for years to follow. As an example, after following a lead car around an exercise for many laps, to suddenly forget the course direction (this would be on a racetrack with very few options) and go the wrong way for no apparent reason is odd. Or to make the decision to not follow the three cars in front of them (that ARE going the correct direction) and suddenly go a completely different route..?
Bulseyeview: Any trips to the emergency room?
RB: Luckily I have never had to deal with a trip to the emergency room (knock on wood) for either myself or a student I was directly working with!
Bulseyeview: Speaking of students, it seems that you often have celebrities of all varieties come through the racing school. Can you share your favorite celeb story?
RB: My favorite celeb story was doing a school back in the early 90’s with Jerry Seinfeld. He was there with two of his high school buddies for a 40th birthday outing. There are typically a few oddballs in a class, but Seinfeld’s class randomly had an unusually large cast of oddball characters, including a guy who introduced himself as “the next Indy 500 winner” (and of course was a terrible driver). At the end of the 3-day school, one of my buddies was having a beer with Jerry and asked him, “So you’ve pretty much been watching all these other students for three days and just building a list of stuff to use in a comedy routine haven’t you?” And Jerry answered, “YES.” I heard sometime around a year later about a routine he did at an LA concert where he talked about “racing people and students.” Cool thing was, if you didn’t know he was a celeb, you would have thought he was a completely regular guy!
Bulseyeview: In general, who performs better: Rock Stars or Movie Stars?
RB: I would say movie stars drive better than rock stars.
Bulseyeview: In your line of work you get to drive some pretty amazing cars, do you have a favorite?
RB: Yeah, I’ve been lucky to be able to drive a LOT of really cool cars over the years! And often on a racetrack where you can really enjoy them! Hands down favorite car so far is the Ferrari 458, followed by a Ferrari F40. The McLaren MP4-12C is really cool too.
Bulseyeview: Favorite circuit to drive on?
RB: Favorite track in North America is Mt. Tremblant. In the world it would be the Nordschleife!
Bulseyeview: You guys spend a ton of time on the road, do you have a go to restaurant in the middle of nowhere that we should know about?
RB: That’s right up there among the highs and lows of “The Life.” Discovering a really good restaurant near a racetrack where you thought you were going to be doing McDonald’s is a true delight! Often however, it’s mediocre fried or fast food. Lake Street Cafe in Elkhart Lake (near Road America) has the most awesome Steak Cordon Bleu I’ve ever tasted! The Boathouse near Lime Rock is pretty good. And of course you can’t forget Baja Cantina in Carmel (fantastic Cadillac Margaritas)!
Bulseyeview: You have worked with many aspiring race drivers, do you have one who stood out above the rest?
RB: Two standouts for students I’ve worked with were Sean Patrick Flannery (actor from the movie Powder and the Young Indiana Jones series) and John Edwards (currently racing Grand AM). Sean did some celebrity Dodge Neon races that Skip Barber ran and he was a natural! John Edwards started racing with Skip Barber at age 12 and back then he was more mature and savvy in a race car than most guys three times his age!
Bulseyeview: Can you name your top 3 young drivers you have assisted?
RB: The list of young racers I’ve worked with over the years is pretty long…… Alexander Rossi, Conor Daly and Josef Newgarden would probably be the three that are the most prominent at the moment.
Bulseyeview: Have you ever had a middle age person off the street arrive at school with no experience and shock you with their talent? I have visions of an accountant from Iowa who could have been Ayrton Senna.
RB: Not really. It’s pretty much true that most of the good students were either young (usually with years of experience already in karting) or slightly older with some sort of previous racing/track experience. I’m yet to run across the Midwest, never been in a race car, Ayrton.
Bulseyeview: Who is the fastest instructor out there?
RB: Ha, ha.. That’s the million dollar question! I can say with complete honesty that it’s not me. But pretty much everyone else I work with thinks it’s themselves! I’ll lead off my list with Kris Wilson, Kelly Collins, and Mikel Miller (not to offend anyone else I left off the list, as there’s a lot of great instructors). Todd Snyder gets the honorable mention for being pretty much as fast those guys and the hands down winner for answering the age old “I think so and so corner can be done flat, what do you think?” question! Years ago when the Skip Barber cars had just got some new bodywork and wings, there was a debate about whether Turn 9 at Laguna was now possibly flat or not (a relevant question as the wings were primarily for looks and any downforce would have been accidental). Todd came in after one testing session and announced “Yep, it’s flat alright.” As all around him were in the process of picking our jaws up off the ground, he finished the sentence with “Of course I went 30 feet off at the exit, but I was flat……..”